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Even into their retirement
Couple will continue to nudge the world toward peace

Through peace marches, war protests, civil disobedience, candlelight vigils, petition signing, educational workshops, peace songs, justice advocacy and public speaking, Rusty and Nancy Nelson have helped coordinate the peace movement in the Inland Northwest for more than 20 years.

Now they are retiring and turning over responsibilities to Liz Moore, who has begun as the new director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS).

Rusty and Nancy Nelson
Rusty and Nancy Nelson

The Nelsons have taught nonviolence, planted seeds, written articles and worked to change minds, open eyes, call people to love enemies and change the world a little as co-directors of PJALS.

While some in the organization are driven by secular and humanitarian values, their motivation stems from their faith as Mennonites, one of the traditional peace churches.  They are part of Shalom Church, United Church of Christ/Mennonite, that meets at the Community Building at 35 W. Main where the PJALS office is.

As they retire this spring after mentoring and training Liz, they look forward to continuing to find ways to nudge the world a bit more into the ways of peace.

The Nelsons moved to Spokane in 1981 from Minneapolis, where their involvement in a Bible study at a Presbyterian church led them here hoping to form an intentional community with two other families. 

The son of a Presbyterian pastor, Rusty lived in Georgia, Florida and Arkansas.  His maternal grandfather was a Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice, and an uncle was Senator Richard Russell.  Rusty’s early aims were fame and fortune.

After graduation in English from Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., in 1966, he worked six months as an aide to his uncle in Washington, D.C., and then entered the Army with an ROTC commission.  He served two years in Georgia and then in Vietnam. 

In 1969, he began a career in radio broadcasting in Gainesville, Ga.  Laid off in the recession of 1971, he visited his brother in France.  They traveled by car in 15 countries, picking up three hitch hikers in Croatia.

One was Nancy.

Adopted by a family in Minnesota after three years in an orphanage, she studied French at Mankato State University, graduated in 1967 and began a master’s degree in French existentialist theatre.  She graduated in 1972 after she and Rusty married.

Rusty worked with radio stations in Athens and then in Gainesville.  Nancy taught in a newly integrated, rural middle school and high school, where students included children of professors and sharecroppers.

After moving to Minneapolis in 1975, she was an insurance agent and Rusty, a radio broadcaster.

After Nancy had a dramatic “born again” experience, she persuaded Rusty to join her in attending a Presbyterian church.  They were drawn to a small group concerned about social justice in Central America when Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated.

Out of hope, Nancy’s involvement in civil rights and Rusty’s segregation background, they adopted two African-American children, Nate, in Minneapolis, and Lara, in Spokane in 1983.  Nancy and Rusty know their children sometimes faced tension at school in Spokane because of their parents’ witness—in addition to racial prejudice.

Traveling to Spokane with the Mennonite “Your Way Directory,” they stayed in homes rather than hotels. Arriving in Spokane, they stayed at Nick and Barb Kassenbaum’s home.  Nick, a Mennonite pastor, was then Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) staff of the Peace and Justice Center that became PJALS.

The Kassenbaums went to a conference and left them to care for their home and prepare for Sunday evening worship there.  The service there impressed on them that Jesus wanted his disciples to love their enemies and pray for those who persecuted them.  They had found their church home.

Rusty worked at KXLY full time for six years until he began working half-time as associate director of PJALS in 1988.  He continued part time for KXLY and then worked part-time at KPBX until three years ago.

After a few years as a stay-at-home mother, Nancy began working part time at PJALS as the FOR staff.  Later she worked with the Central America Solidarity Association, an organization in the same office.

Over the years, the office moved from the Glover Mansion in 1985 to the Cowley Building at Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, to a house the church owned.   When it burned, they were in the basement of the Episcopal Diocese of Spokane, then a storefront on S. Howard, before moving in January 2000 to the Community Building.

In 1990, when Kathleen Donohoe, the director, became too sick with cancer to work, Rusty became director and was soon joined by Nancy.

In 1994, Kathleen had cancer surgery and was told a year after that she might gain two years of life by having a bone marrow transplant. Since then, Nancy and Rusty have continued to bear witness to nonviolent activism.

Issues they have addressed have included ending apartheid in South Africa, racism here, oppression in Central America, the nuclear arms race, the death penalty and war after war, from the Gulf War to Kosovo to Afghanistan and Iraq.  They have also advocated for women’s rights, the living wage, fair trade and other forms of economic justice.

Being arrested for civil disobedience became part of their witness.  Nancy was first arrested in 1985 for sitting with three others on the train tracks at 4 a.m. to block the “White Train” on its way with weapons for a nuclear submarine in Bangor, Wash.

“I moved from committed, to convinced, to called to participate in civil disobedience,” she said. 

Nancy has been arrested about 12 times, not because it’s her job or because she wants to, but when she needs to make a witness to obey God’s laws in face of unjust human laws that contradict her understanding of the Bible. If there are other ways to persuade people, she and Rusty use them, too.

“Our goal is not to win, but to convert,” Rusty said, who has seen “surprising changes” in people.

The first time Nancy was tried after being arrested, one of her attorneys was so moved that he became involved in the peace movement and is still involved.

Once after being arrested at a recruiting office for an action in solidarity with Central American people, Rusty explained to the jury why he did what he did.  After the trial, in which 14 activists were convicted, some jurors and the bailiff said they were profoundly moved and educated by what he said.

The Nelsons have gone to Georgia several times to protest the School of the Americas, which trains Latin American police and military who have assassinated priests and others who promoted justice.  Rusty first protested there with Paddy Inman, who served six months in prison.  Rusty’s  mother, then 85, joined him and was also arrested.

“She kept up with what we were doing and became concerned about the atrocities committed by SOA graduates,” said Rusty, noting that was quite a change for her, coming from a politically influential family.

He has also seen changed attitudes, like the decline in discrimination against gays and lesbians.

“Peace efforts wax and wane, strong until shooting starts and people back the President,” he said, recalling a rally with 3,000 protesting going to war in Iraq.

My journey has taken me from a radical awakening to a more mature faith and a recognition of what I can do and what I can’t do,” he said.  “Nancy’s father told me when we adopted Nate: “You can’t change the world.”

“I said then, ‘I can change the part I am in contact with,’” said Rusty, aware he needs “to see what I can do to change a little more of the world.  So although I’m retiring, I’m not quitting.  There’s still more I can do.”

Their salaries at PJALS assured a commitment to live simply with few possessions.  As a parent, Rusty compromised some goals for time with his children, but did not give in to the materialistic culture as his children realized they had less than some friends.

“I have worked to make the world better for them. I didn’t want them to grow up and find the world as I found it,” he said.  “When I think of my grandchildren, I still want to tilt at some windmills.”

“Our role has been to be prophetic voices to power, voices for the voiceless,” Nancy said.

“We believe the peace movement and efforts for nonviolent social change follow Jesus’ commandments, especially the Sermon on the Mount,” she said.  “War has historically been shown to be an ineffective means to solve conflicts. We have not attained lasting peace through military means.  Nor do we bring democracy by dropping bombs and killing hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians.

“Our faith makes it obvious that we need to end our involvement in war,” Nancy said.

As a convert to a peace church, Rusty saw part of his calling as a missionary to churches, to spread awareness that militarism and materialism muddy Gospel values.

The priority for churches and peace activists is to plant seeds of change, he said.  He has also seen a shift in attitudes about free trade as people realize they had turned the economy over to corporations that led to the economic disaster.

“Much of this economic crisis is because lower-income people are not paid enough to meet their basic needs, while we have overcompensated the executives,” Nancy said.  “If top dollar draws and keeps executives, assuring quality work, it would be true of work at all levels of a company.”

What would they like to see?

• The Corrections Department could turn from punishing to rehabilitating people.

• Half of military resources could be converted from destructive to constructive ends, such as responding to natural disasters.

• Seeing and seeking God in every person and every part of creation would make it impossible to kill another person.

“Because we see only two options—fight or flight—too often people see peace as ‘flight’ or weakness.  The idea of peace through strength—going to war for peace—twists our thinking,” Nancy said.  “The idea that violence, even war, is sometimes right or acceptable undermines progress in the human family.

“We still need to challenge people of faith to see forgiveness, loving enemies and active peacemaking as being in everyone’s best interest, not just being platitudes from Jesus.”

For information, call 838-7870. Peace and Justice Action League Spokane